Being an interpreter to the various peoples of the land is more difficult than Launtis thought--especially since his only chance to bring an important message to the Water People is slipping away.
This was supposed to be an easy assignment. Find the Water People, Master Ulreg had said, in the Valley of Lakes. They gather at the full moon of every month. All Launtis had to do was to deliver the King’s invitation to the Summer Feast, he said.
But there was one problem.
The Water People would not stop talking.
Launtis, ever prepared, had arrived in the valley long before the Water people. As the sun had set over the western mountains, he watched the shadows grow long and the moon peek over the eastern mountains. Then he heard them.
He first thought that great waters rushed toward the valley from the cliffs above, but when the first of the Water people emerged from the shadows, he discovered that the sound came from the echoes of their voices across the valley.
The people flowed into the valley like the water for which they were named, their clothing flashing silver-blue in the moonlight, their hair white as waterfalls. Some laughed, a high, trickling sound like woodland streams. Others whispered, a soft, many-toned sound like rain upon leaves. Still others roared, with the deafening thunder of a river pouring over a cliff and pounding into a basin below. Some voices ebbed and flowed, like waves curling on the sea shore and retreating again. A few made soft, percussive speeches, like the falling of drops onto a still, glassy lake.
They nodded at Launtis, smiled in greeting, and flowed around him, never breaking stride. He searched for hours for a king or a representative to whom he might deliver the message, but all looked alike to him. He tried shouting above the din, but he soon gave up. He could not even hear himself.
Still they smiled and flowed and talked.
“Yes, the stranger is welcome.”
“A stranger is here! He is welcome!”
No one seemed interested in hearing what the very welcome stranger might have to say.
At last, Launtis sat on a stone at the edge of a lake (one of many in the valley), and cupped his chin in his hands. The reflection of his mournful face stared back at him.
And here he had been for hours, while the night grew older and his chance to give the message slipped away with every passing moment. Dawn would come soon, the meeting would end, and he would have failed.
Launtis snorted, though it could hardly be heard above the cacophonic babble around him. He should have known. Since when did Master Ulreg give him an easy task?
From the very first assignment as apprentice to the aged Interpreter, Launtis had had his foot—both feet, actually—in trouble of all kinds.
“I can speak twelve languages,” Launtis had said confidently, on that bright morning, almost a full year ago.
“Can you now?” Master Ulreg opened one eye. He reclined on the southern slope of a hill, breathing in the warmth of the light contentedly, with his hands folded on his stomach. His long gray beard flowed over his chest and Launtis tried not to notice that a few ants explored it with curiosity.
“Twelve languages,” Master Ulreg muttered, closing his eyes again and sighing. “Which ones?”
Launtis straightened his lanky body and hoped he looked impressive. “I can speak the languages of Ice, Fire, Stone, Wind, Evergreen, Freshwater Fish…”
“Can you speak Songbird?” Master Ulreg interrupted, without opening his eyes.
“Songbird? Of course. My teacher said that is one of the most fundamental lan…”
“Go to the forest,” said Master Ulreg. “Tell the Songbirds that it is time for their yearly treatment.”
“Lice,” said Master Ulreg shortly. “I brew them a medicated bath yearly. Go on.”
Launtis’ grand hopes for interpreting for kings and chieftains evaporated. Perhaps it was a test of his skill. Yes, it had to be a test. Launtis was half a mile down the road before realization struck him. Red as a beet, he returned to the hill.
“Which part of the forest should I go to?” he stammered, hoping that the question was vague enough to hide his real purpose.
In answer, Master Ulreg lifted a hand.
“The Forest,” he said dryly. “Is that way. Keep walking and you’ll find it.”
He pointed in the opposite direction of Launtis’ first dash.
Launtis was half-way down the hill before another thought struck him and he again turned back.
“Will take five days,” Master Ulreg finished. “You’ll find supplies in the cabin. Have fun!”
Fun. If only Launtis had known. Ten days later, Launtis arrived back at the cabin.
“Did you deliver the message?” Master Ulreg asked, stirring a large iron pot over the fireplace.
“Well, Master Ulreg,” Launtis began. “I began to speak to the Songbirds, but they…”
“I see. You didn’t deliver the message.”
Drat the old man. He could have at least had the courtesy to listen to Launtis’ carefully-planned speech. Launtis decided that his new master was very rude.
“Well?” asked Master Ulreg.
“Well what?” Launtis asked, slumping onto a nearby wooden chair dejectedly.
“Master Ulreg, they don’t understand anything I say.”
“You said you could speak Songbird,” Master Ulreg said, peering over his circular spectacles.
“I can,” said Launtis miserably. “Maybe they speak the wrong dialect.”
“Could you understand them?”
“Yes. Eventually. They sing everything. I tried to find one that would talk to me. No one would.”
Master Ulreg poked Launtis’s breastbone with a crooked finger.
“A language is not just words. It is the way the words are said.”
“You mean,” said Launtis slowly. “You have to sing the words for them to understand?”
Master Ulreg simply gazed at Launtis. “Go back and try again.”
Ten days later, Launtis returned, followed by a fleet of Songbirds.
Somehow the completion of his assignment did not make up for the fact that he spent the next several weeks nursing his blistered heels and sore shins, and sneezing his way through a wretched cold.
The next assignment had been no better.
“Go tell the Mountain People,” said Master Ulreg, “that the Flatlanders would like to meet next year in the Flatland capital about matters regarding the stone trade.”
“I don’t know Mountain,” stammered Launtis.
“You know Stone, don’t you? It’s the same thing, only on a grander scale.”
“How many days’ journey this time?”
Wordlessly, Launtis began to pack. Then he stopped. “Did you say the meeting will be held next year?”
“Why should I go now then?” He noticed Master Ulreg looking hard at him over the spectacles and added by way of apology, “Sir.”
“Because the Mountain people are not hasty folk. They need time to consider the proposal, and time to get to the meeting place.”
When Launtis still hesitated, Master Ulreg said, almost cheerfully, “Go on. I have every confidence in you.”
Given Launtis’ inauspicious beginnings, Launtis felt suspicious of Master Ulreg’s confidence, but he went anyway. This time he made sure to ask for directions.
Again, he returned empty-handed, and in a foul temper.
“They just groan, and they hardly move. I can’t understand a word.”
Master Ulreg set down his quill pen. “Slow down. Learn the culture. You will see.”
Launtis stayed with the Mountain people a whole month before he learned their dialect. Master Ulreg stood at the cabin door when Launtis arrived.
“Well, my boy?”
“They elongate their words,” replied Launtis hoarsely. “It took me four days to give the message.”
“Excellent! Come, I have some tea to soothe your throat.”
Launtis thought the third assignment could not possibly be worse. He was wrong.
“Go to the Wind people,” commanded Master Ulreg. “And tell them to fly more gently over the farmers’ fields. They’re spoiling crops.”
Returning several weeks later, Launtis entered the cabin with heavy footsteps. “First, I couldn’t find them.”
“I did tell you that they travel a lot.”
“Yes,” said Launtis. “But you didn’t tell me that they don’t speak at all.”
“I thought you said you knew Wind.”
“When I moan or wail or whisper, they don’t listen.” Launtis sat down on the bench by the fire and stared moodily into the flames. “That’s all the Wind I know. But these people simply don’t speak.”
“Words,” said Master Ulreg gently, “are a very small part of real communication. Try again. But take a bath first.”
Some weeks afterward, Launtis returned, far too tired to be irate anymore.
“How did it go?” Master Ulreg asked.
“I danced until I couldn’t stand,” Launtis replied. “Then they danced back. I didn’t catch it all, but the gist of it was that they promised to be gentler over the fields.”
Was that a twinkle in Master Ulreg’s eye, or simply a reflection from the crackling fireplace?
“No words.” Launtis flopped onto the bed in the corner of the cabin, and was asleep nearly before his head hit the pillow.
Launtis had promised himself not to fail a fourth time. But failure, at this moment, seemed as inevitable as the approaching dawn.
Launtis stared at the Water people gloomily. He had returned empty-handed to Master Ulreg too many times. Worse, if he missed this chance, he would not have another opportunity to communicate to the Water people for a whole month, and by that time, the Summer Feast would be over.
“You’re a failure,” Launtis grumbled. “Just admit it, Launtis. Why did you ever think you could be an interpreter? Twelve languages indeed. Plenty of good they’ve done me.”
He glanced up, and met the smiling face of a Water woman. Her mouth moved incessantly as she drifted by him in the constant motion of her people.
“Welcome to the stranger,” she said to those around her. “He has come to bring a message.”
Then she was gone. Some minutes later, a man passed him. “The stranger is welcome. We are waiting for his message.”
“How can I give you my message when you keep talking?” Launtis exploded, rising.
“The stranger wishes to know,” said a woman passing by, “How he can give his message when we keep talking.” Then she continued on her way.
Some minutes later, one of the passing men said, “The stranger wishes to give a message, and wonders how he can do so while we are talking.”
Launtis sat back down. It was hopeless. He shredded a piece of grass and it made him feel a little better.
It had always been simple before, even when he was too dull to see it. The Songbirds’ way of life was song; therefore he had to sing to them. A mountain changed very slowly; therefore he had to speak very slowly to the Mountain people. The wind rarely made sound, but always moved; therefore the Wind people communicated through motion. But the Waters? They were just as unceasingly noisy as the water for which they were named.
Launtis sat up straighter, and considered. His reflection tightened his lips and wrinkled his brow. Perhaps… If he was wrong, the next hour would bring the sun, and he would have failed. If he was right… There was only one way to know.
Launtis rose and entered the endless stream of Water people, striding at their speed. Then he began to talk.
“The King has given an invitation to the Water people. The people are invited to the Summer Feast. The King has given an invitation to the Summer Feast. The Water People are invited by the King to the Summer Feast…”
He spoke until his tongue felt dry and wooden in his mouth. Slowly, the words around him began to change.
“The stranger says we are invited to the Summer Feast…”
“The King has invited us to the Feast, the stranger tells us…”
“So says the stranger: We are invited to the Summer Feast, invited by the King…”
Hope rose in Launtis’ chest and he chose new words. “Tell me if you accept the King’s invitation to the Summer Feast. Do the Water people accept the invitation? Will you come to the Summer Feast?”
Many minutes passed, and the words trickling through the swell of voices began to carry a new message.
“Shall we go to the Summer Feast?”
“Do we accept the invitation?”
“What shall we say to the King’s invitation?”
The people debated for some time, the thread of conversation flowing from one speaker to the next, until it had reached all. Launtis repeated his question meanwhile.
Then, a grin spread over his face, as the news filtered back to him from a thousand voices.
“Yes, we will accept the King’s invitation.”
“The invitation is accepted. We shall come to the Summer Feast.”
“Thank the King for us, stranger. We are glad to come to the Summer Feast.”
“I will thank the king,” said Launtis. “I will thank him for the Water people.”
He repeated his words until they were caught up in the stream of the Water people and carried through their assembly. Then he stepped away, and they smiled and nodded as he waved his farewell.
The first light of morning spilled fire on the horizon as he began his journey home.
“Well?” said Master Ulreg, as Launtis entered the cabin a week later. “What answer do the Water people give?”
“They will come,” said Launtis, pulling off his boots and wiggling his toes with relief. “And they thank the King for the invitation.”
“Marvelous!” Master Ulreg said, then, abruptly: “Do you see that wrapped parcel over the fireplace? Bring it here.”
Groaning, Launtis padded in his bare feet over the rough wooden floorboards and retrieved the parcel.
“Open it,” said Master Ulreg.
Launtis tore off the string and unfolded the brown paper. “An Interpreter’s medallion?”
“Congratulations,” said Master Ulreg. “You’ve graduated.”
“But…” Launtis stammered. “I only know twelve languages, and most of them I don’t know nearly as well as I think I do. And I’ve failed every assignment but this last one.”
“Yes,” said Master Ulreg. “But you’ve learned something. Tell me what you’ve learned.”
“I don’t know!” Launtis threw his hands up in the air. “No one spoke like I expected, and I couldn’t understand the language until I understood the people.”
He stopped, and reviewed what he had just said. Suddenly, he felt very pleased with himself and, judging from his master’s face, Master Ulreg was pleased as well.
“Yes,” said Master Ulreg. “You know now that communication is more than language. It is people. Knowing this, you will be able to learn any language you wish.”
He leaned toward Launtis, and startled his apprentice with an actual smile. “True, there is much left for you to know. But the true art of communication, the thing which cannot be taught, but only learned—you have learned it.”